There are two words on the lips of today’s tech mavens: “cloud” and “computing.” From corporate headquarters to funky design studios, it’s hard to go a day without crossing someone waxing eloquent about their cloud expertise. And yet, when you really ask people on the street, few have a deep sense of just what cloud computing is and what it can do for them:
It looks like those two words should really be three: cloud computing guide. Here we take a good hard look at the cloud, busting a few myths along the way and exploring all of the good and all of the bad.
Just what is cloud computing?
“Instead of having all of your data stored in a local place, you can actually have it stored off-location, and it’s accessible from any number of devices.”
You heard it loud and clear in the video above, and there’s no better way to say it. Right now, you’re probably used to storing, say, that Microsoft Word file right on your computer, or perhaps on one of your company’s private servers. In the cloud, you’ll store your files on pooled servers operated by a third party, and, if you use business productivity apps, you’ll access those servers through the internet, working in some senses both on your computer and remotely through these servers.
This is called Software as a Service (SaaS) cloud computing, but if your small business has the cash flow to merit the expense, you might also be interested in Platform or Infrastructure as a Service cloud computing as well. In these two types of cloud computing, service providers either give businesses the components from which developers can build customized applications for their clients (Platform) or they host software you’ve had developed on their servers (Infrastructure…think Amazon Web Services). While certainly not cheap, this pooled resource approach does bring the cost down to a price level far more approachable for small and medium businesses than ever before.
Cloud computing photo by Shutterstock
What it can do for you
Yes, you’ve probably seen more than your fair share of tech and business trends come and go. But the cloud isn’t just a fad; it’s several decades in the making and there are many reasons why it’s popular…and why it’s going to stick around. Why? Because the cloud:
1. Saves time and increases productivity. When a business is fully plugged into the cloud, employees can access the data and projects they need from any one of the mobile devices so prevalent in today’s workplace — smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc. Employees who aren’t tethered to a desk can get more done in more spaces.
2. Make collaboration easy. What’s more, because cloud-based business apps centralize projects in one place, there’s no redundant data. Edits can be made directly to shared documents without any one person needing to track and compile them into one place. This both saves time and makes collaboration a breeze, as does the ability to easily add collaborators and communicate directly from cloud-based programs, rather than toggling back and forth between the program and an email client.
3. Automate backups. Storage on the cloud requires not a single inch of brain real estate. With cloud-based storage apps, you can simply drag and drop files for syncing, or you can work directly in the applications, which save your work automatically. And because it’s the job of cloud-based companies to keep their customers’ data secure, you can bet they have better security for your work than what you’ll have on your own computer. The only downside to cloud syncing from your computer is demonstrated cogently in this networking guide. Essentially, the greater the number of files you’re backing up and the bigger they are, the more bandwidth they’ll hog and the greater the likelihood they’ll slow down your internet. As such, you might want to consider upgrading your router or switching to enterprise level internet service as you move on to the cloud.
4. Potentially save money. Whether your business runs its own servers that require upkeep or you simply find yourself paying for software updates more frequently than you would like, the cloud could be a real cost saver. Most cloud-based services are based on annual, monthly, or as-needed models, with many offering free and paid versions based on the amount of storage and features required. However, this is a case where volume and frequency are important factors to consider. You may not, for instance, need to pay a monthly fee for a service you use once a year. Use it once every hour, and it might be a better investment.
A few essential cloud apps
The cloud-o-sphere is busy with apps these days, but if you’re thinking of testing the waters, here are just a few great places to start.
1. Google products. From Google Calendar to Google Docs, Spreadsheets, Presentations and more, there are few things you can’t do with Google Products, which are at once a hub and a productivity dashboard. Edit documents as the same time as a collaborator while talking on Google Hangouts; schedule meetings right from your email; and definitely forget about pushing save. Google products backup automatically and have every feature you — and all of your colleagues — need in one easy to find and use place.
2. Xero. Hear the words “finance” or “accounting” and you might not necessarily start buzzing with excitement. But the cloud-based finance app, Xero is buzzworthy. Imagine all of the time you’d save if you could bill a customer on your tablet immediately after making a delivery, or do the accounting on your smartphone in your off-time between the kids’ soccer games. Xero is easy to navigate, and, because you can update as you go on your mobile devices, there’s no need to block out time to enter paper data into the system.
3. Dropbox and Google Drive. These two cloud-based storage apps are the top players in the game. Simply click and drag files you’d like to back up into the app’s folder, and voila, instant syncing. If you want to access these files on the road, you can do so on any mobile device, which means everything you could conceivably need to get a job done will always be with you. Google Drive is a little different because it ties nicely into all of Google’s other products, enabling bigger attachments in Gmail and storing all of your work in Google Docs, Presentations, and so forth. However, there are avid fans of both, so choose yours accordingly.
The cloud may seem a mythical beast, but it’s easy to master with the right knowledge and tools. Doing so will be well worth mounting the very small learning curve. After all, who couldn’t benefit from a little more productivity, accessibility and collaboration? Now those are buzzwords worth keeping around.
Luke Clum is a creative marketer, designer and outdoorsman from Seattle.
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